Summer's Possibilities

July 1, 2015


Many of my best memories take me back to summer vacations at my grandparents' cotton and tobacco farm in rural South Carolina. I spent carefree weeks playing with my many cousins and even helped out by picking tobacco. As a teenager, I continued to enjoy my summer vacations, but worked jobs closer to home, including a stint at Harlem Hospital. It was a great feeling of independence to be able to work and earn a little spending money. And although I worked during my summer vacations, I still took advantage of the typical summer pleasures of being outside, sleeping late, having free time with family and friends, and not worrying about studying for the next test or planning the next paper.

On a related note, the less structured explorations that happen in summer can lead kids on a path to learning adventures. Increasingly, parents, recreation departments, and school districts are recognizing this. There are robotics camps where students can spend entire afternoons tinkering, chess clubs where kids can learn to be more critical thinkers, and computer programming classes where participants write code in a free form environment. A common thread that runs throughout these programs is that youngsters are not graded and engage in these pursuits just for the fun of it.

Several organizations have picked up on this. The New York City Department of Education (DOE) has built on this idea by leveraging many of the city's leading cultural institutions. Kids visit the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, the New York Aquarium, the Queens Zoo, and the Staten Island Zoo for 'immersive experiences' in science. Under the starry skies of southern Arizona, the University of Arizona lets students explore the heavens in Astronomy Camp. And at the University of Washington, a NACME Partner Institution, learning 'blooms' in a summer gardening program that teaches young people about botany.

At NACME, summer has also been the time for our college-age NACME Scholars to intern at NACME Board Companies. Scholars see what life is like for an engineer outside the classroom and get real world experience. Shani Allison, a NACME Scholar and Program Management Analyst, at the Ford Motor Company, a NACME Board Company, has said; "... the two summer internship experiences I got through NACME put me ahead of my peers. By having previous work experience I was able to find success quickly and transition into the workforce smoothly, which allowed me to pay it forward sooner than later." Our other board companies also value our internship program as it is a tool for recruiting excellent candidates. For these reasons and more, we have committed to growing our Summer Internship Program as part of our new Connectivity 2020 Strategic Plan.

Summer is fleeting. Whether you plan on recreation, learning, or a combination of the two, here's to making the most of it!



New Approaches to Enlisting More Mentors and Teachers


June 4, 2015


Every May I send out a personal letter to each of NACME’s graduating seniors congratulating them on achieving their bachelor’s of engineering degree. Each new diploma is not only a personal accomplishment for the student, but also something that the larger NACME family can be proud of. This year, I am happy to report that I sent out 428 letters to graduating underrepresented minorities who benefited from NACME Scholarships.

Along with my congratulations, I ask these students to stay involved with NACME and to find ways to mentor the next generation. Role models are especially needed in underrepresented communities. With the excitement and demands of a first job, it can be hard to find time to give back. At a breakfast meeting with new NACME Scholars at the University of Arkansas this month, I was impressed that all of the students I spoke with already had jobs lined up with lucrative starting salaries, and one with our board company —ExxonMobil, or were continuing their studies. While I was excited for them, I could also see that they would need to turn their energies toward establishing themselves on the job before considering how they could volunteer in a mentoring role.

One idea for connecting young underrepresented minorities with successful professionals was beautifully exhibited recently at the High School for Construction Trades, Engineering and Architecture (CTEA), one of NACME’s Partner High Schools, in Queens, N.Y. During the CTEA’s Career Day on May 8th, High School Juniors had the opportunity to meet with engineering professionals. Students in a robotics class, for example, met with three young African American engineers who work for Sikorsky, an aircraft corporation. When young people see successful professionals who look like them, it is much easier for them to consider following a similar career path.

Perhaps the best STEM mentors are middle and high school teachers. Building diversity in the American STEM pipeline will require that we rapidly address the shortage of STEM teachers in underrepresented communities. One innovative approach that many states have adopted to quickly get more qualified STEM professionals into classrooms in underrepresented communities is to give working professionals in the STEM field temporary teaching credentials while they gradually earn a full teaching license via an alternative route. The California Teacher Corps and the Massachusetts “MINT” programs offer variations on this approach. And organizations such as Teach for America and Math for America employ slightly different approaches to achieve the same important goal.

The common thread that weaves together programs such as Career Day at the CTEA and the California Teacher Corps is the recognition that connecting promising STEM students from underrepresented communities with worthy mentors and teachers calls for innovative new approaches. Or, as the old saying goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention.”



Perseverance in Science and Life


May 6, 2015

Olester Benson, my friend and NACME Board Liaison, recently sent me a link to a National Public Radio interview he taped on the subject of ‘Embracing Failure in Science.’ Dr. Benson, a Corporate Research Scientist at 3M, discussed with the other guests the value of embracing failure as an essential part of the scientific process. The guests talked about how, in the history of science, failed experiments were not negative occurrences, but valuable lessons that helped scientists narrow down their search for the breakthrough discoveries that lay ahead. What was the takeaway from the program? ‘Don’t be afraid to fail…and keep on going.’ The idea can be summed up in one word: ‘perseverance.’

This spring, I have been invited to give commencement addresses in two very different parts of the county. On May 9th, I will be the Commencement Speaker for the University of Arkansas’ College of Engineering in Fayetteville, Arkansas. On May 19th, I will be the Commencement Speaker at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) in Newark, New Jersey. During the commencement at NJIT, I will also be honored with a Doctor of Humane Letters.

As I address the Class of 2015, I will be thinking about their perseverance. Many of these graduates hail from backgrounds that have been traditionally underrepresented in the engineering profession. Others are the first in their families to go to college. And all have successfully completed challenging coursework in science and engineering.

My advice to the students will be to retain that determination throughout their careers. During a recent speech to graduates, President Obama echoed these sentiments as well. “True excellence only comes with perseverance,” he said. “That wasn’t something I really understood when I was your age.”

In this issue of NACME Now, we take time to recognize members of our larger family who have received honors and reached milestones. We also announce Elizabeth Ross as our new Chief Development Officer. As a strong fundraising effort is vital to everything we do, Elizabeth will be playing a key role here at NACME. I hope you will join me in welcoming her.



My Visit to Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico (PUPR)


Wednesday, April 1, 2015

On March 17-18, 2015 I had the pleasure to stop in on the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico (PUPR) family for a fabulous visit. I left the university energized, both spiritually and intellectually. I am a first-generation college student and a man of color. My entire academic career has been dedicated to creating opportunity for talented minds from humble circumstances to excel in higher education and beyond. PUPR provides such an opportunity for talented STEM students in a beautiful setting.

As always, the best part of my campus visits is the time spent with NACME Scholars and other underrepresented minority engineering students. Our NACME Scholars at PUPR are on the cutting edge of undergraduate research in engineering. The faculty, staff, and administration are focused on teaching and learning, and student success. PUPR has clearly designed a model of best practices in minority engineering education that I feel must be replicated if we are to succeed in realizing NACME’s vision of an engineering workforce that looks like America.

Dean Carlos Gonzalez, Associate Dean Cuauhtémoc Godoy, and I discussed the development of an Action Plan to delineate specific actions to be taken to strengthen the collaboration between PUPR and NACME.

I look forward to the next steps.

Photos of Dr. McPhail's visit to PUPR can be seen in the NACME Photo Gallery 

Response to President Obama’s “America’s College Promise Proposal”


Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The recent announcement by President Obama that he would propose a plan to make the first two years of community college free comes as a major boost to energizing the community college pathway to engineering for all Americans, most especially underrepresented minorities (URMs). According to The White House Fact Sheet, the America’s College Promise Proposal aims to create a new partnership with states to help them waive tuition in high-quality programs for responsible students, while promoting key reforms to help more students complete at least two years of college.

NACME has been at the forefront of research, partnership, support, and policy on the community college pathway to engineering careers for URMs. My own background in academic leadership includes nearly 12 years as a dean, campus president, and chancellor at progressively more complex community college systems. Transfer programs in engineering science, and career programs in engineering technologies were hallmarks of the academic programs offered at each of these three community college systems: Wayne County Community College, St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley, and The Community College of Baltimore County.

Specifically, NACME’s Community College Strategy has encompassed scholarship support for high school juniors and seniors to take calculus, physics, and introduction to engineering courses at their local community colleges in circumstances where those courses were not offered by the K-12 public school district; targeted transfer scholarships for engineering science students at community colleges who complete their associate’s degree and successfully transfer to bachelor’s degree programs at any one of NACME’s 51 Partner Institutions across the nation; a major study of NACME Scholars who began their post-secondary education in the community college that demonstrated higher GPAs and retention rates for community college transfer students; and a Lumina Foundation-funded grant to explore contextualized instructional models that utilize Problem-Based Learning (PBL) in intermediate algebra and pre-calculus courses, and that integrate engineering awareness, concepts, and skills. Our current efforts are focused on incentivizing best practices in engineering transfer and articulation between community colleges and NACME Partner Institutions in our regionally-based NACME STEM Integration Model sites.

Why is the community college such a vital partner in the national effort to increase the representation of African American, American Indian, and Latino women and men in engineering education and careers?

Nearly half of U.S. undergraduates enroll in community colleges. Community college students constitute 40 percent of first-time freshmen and 52 percent of American Indian, 45 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander, 43 percent of African American, and 52 percent of Latino undergraduates. For many of these students, a community college education is the gateway to a four-year college degree.

Although the collegiate function (transfer and liberal arts) of the community college has been well-documented, recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center showed the impact of the community college in providing an educational foundation for students who transfer successfully and earn a four-year degree1. The study showed that nearly 75 percent of the students who earned an associate degree and then moved to a four-year college graduated with a bachelor’s degree within four years of transferring. The report demonstrated the importance of tracking outcomes of community college graduates over a longer period.

Less well acknowledged is the role of the community college in the education of engineers in the U.S. Adelman revealed that 20 percent of engineering degree recipients began their academic careers at community colleges, earning a minimum of 10 credits from these institutions2. Data from the 2008 National Survey of Recent College Graduates (NSRCG) documented that 44.4 percent of recent graduates with bachelor’s degrees and 25 percent with master’s degrees in engineering attended community college3.

Analysis of the 2006 NSRCG data by Tsapogas showed that 64 percent of American Indian/Alaska Natives only, 5 percent of Black only, and 55 percent of Hispanic science and engineering bachelor’s and master’s degree recipients in 2004 and 2005, attended community college4.

I believe that this is a propitious moment to connect four strands that relate directly to the concerns about U.S. competitiveness in the flat world: 1) the fact that diversity drives innovation and that its absence imperils our designs, our products, and, most of all, our creativity—all components of competitiveness; 2) African American, American Indian, and Latino women and men remain one of the most underrepresented minority groups in engineering-related fields; 3) African American, American Indian, and Latino students are well-represented in the community college sector, although not in the STEM disciplines; and 4) community colleges are already essential to the education of engineers in the U.S.5

We agree that President Obama’s plan is a potential game-changer. Clearly, there is still much to know about this ambitious proposal before free community college tuition could become policy. NACME looks forward to working with all interested stakeholders to maximize the opportunity to produce more URM community college transfer students who successfully complete the bachelor’s degree and beyond in engineering.


1. National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “The Role of Two-Year Colleges in Four-Year Success.” Last modified Spring, 2012.

2. Adelman, C. Women and men of the engineering path: A model for analysis of undergraduate careers. Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1998.

3. National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. Characteristics of recent science and engineering graduates: 2008. Last modified July 15, 2013.

4. Tsapogas, J. The role of community colleges in the education of recent science and engineering graduates. Handout presented at STEM Conference, Montgomery College, MD: October 2007.

5. McPhail, Irving P., “Confronting the 'New' American Dilemma: A National Imperative for the Community College.” Community College Week, March 2013, 4. 


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